Sunday, February 14, 2016

DiCaprio's double

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in January 2003)

I was sick the day I went to see Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. I’d been throwing up all night, and I’d slept all morning through the early afternoon, with every prospect of doing the same for the rest of the day. But I hated the idea of losing an entire day to illness, so I insisted on dragging myself to a movie. It was a mistake – my wife had to wake me up at least four times during the three-hour film. When I got home (one of the most arduous journeys I can recall) I was asleep again within five minutes, and I stayed that way for the rest of the night.

It might therefore seem that I’m ill equipped to comment on the film, and indeed I’ll try not to be too strident in expressing my opinions on it (I may not succeed). But it seems to me my semi-feverish condition actually allowed me to enjoy the movie more than I might have done otherwise. It notionally has a historical setting, and it makes vague reference to real events and people, but it’s obviously at heart an abstracted fantasy of conflict and revenge and strong emotions. Scorsese’s referred to it as a “western in outer space.”

Gangs of New York

This is evident right from the start: a priest strides through a dark warren, gathering men and arms for a pending conflict. With the last man on side, he flings the door open to reveal the snowy landscape outside, and the group lines up to await the opposing forces. This scene has nothing to do with the actual work of preparing for a battle, or for anything else – it’s all sheer momentum and visual flourish. The confrontation itself is a predictably savage spectacle, but the reasons behind it remain vague. During the film, we learn that the leader of the victors maintains a sentimental regard for his vanquished enemy, regarding him as the one good man he went up against during his bloody career. This makes little sense either: it’s a strenuously myth-making device – emotional resonance by numbers. One could continue through the movie, scene by scene, pointing out how nothing really clicks.

The film’s intent is clearest, unfortunately, in the closing credits, designed in a cartoonish style reminiscent of Sergio Leone, the title of whose last work Once Upon a Time in America might have been perfect for the Scorsese film. I’ve become increasingly enchanted by Leone’s films; I appreciate more and more the audacity of his particular blend of politics, stunning panorama, and microscopic attention to eccentricity and foible. Gangs of New York has Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall, and the final hour blends the culmination of the personal drama with rigged elections, and riots over an 1830s Draft Act. But the fiction never illuminates the fact, or vice versa.

Even one of Leone’s lesser films, A Fistful of Dynamite, has stunning moments of recreation, like a long pan across dozens of soldiers shooting down into trenches, massacring hundreds of rebels. Whether or not that actually happened, the scene’s overwhelming presence provides a stunning contrast with the film’s lighter, more laconic elements. When Gangs of New York tries something similar, it’s overwhelmed by an uncharacteristically fussy shooting and editing style, intercut with (presumably authentic) etchings from the period as though the movie didn’t believe in its own ability to convince us. It’s Scorsese’s heaviest movie by far – in the sense of conveying an oppressed and oppressive soul.

Catch Me if You Can

It hardly seems relevant who the actors are in the film. But for the record, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the butcher, in a much-praised performance that’s as mannered and meaningless as everything else in the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the son of the dead priest, who returns years later to avenge his father; he looks awful and achieves nothing.

Two days later, more or less fully recovered, I went to the movies again – and there was DiCaprio again, in Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can. It’s hard not to admire the strategic brilliance of this career planning (or, if it’s pure luck, it’s hard not to admire the way luck can sometimes resemble strategic brilliance). As if having predicted that Scorsese’s dark vision might leave his talent barely visible, the actor contrives simultaneously to appear in theatres in infinitely more ingratiating mode.

Catch Me if You Can is the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a real-life con-man who in the 1960s posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer, along the way embezzling more than four million dollars. Spielberg, who himself bluffed his way onto movie studio lots as a teenager, treats the material as a breezy fantasy. It’s not apparently designed to bear much weight, and yet the film’s tone is so perfectly confident it approaches profundity. He’s said in interviews how he kept the pace of filming deliberately fast, moving on after four or five takes, eschewing the elaboration of his last film Minority Report (which, you’ll recall, appeared a mere seven months ago). It’s a highly successful approach – he should work this way more often.

As DiCaprio soars in his fantasy career, his father (well played by Christopher Walken) sinks into poverty and broken dreams – a thematic backbone subtler than Spielberg usually finds. He’s the long-established master of putting childhood wishes on film, but maybe this is the first time he’s dramatized mundane adult fears so well. Among many other smaller pleasures, the film beautifully captures the sheer thrill that surrounded commercial flight forty years ago – in his (stolen) pilot’s uniform, DiCaprio resembles the keeper of the gate of dreams.

Scorsese’s future

For some reason, I remembered a Scorsese interview from the mid-80s, after The King of Comedy went over-budget and, in most people’s minds, artistically astray (it’s now increasingly regarded, correctly in my view, as one of his best films). He regrouped by making the low-budget, off-the-cuff After Hours, and then by quickly following that up with The Color of Money (which, with its wintery abstractions of his usual themes, I think is his most underrated and patronized movie). He acknowledged having rather lost his way for a while, saying that the practice of alternating a smaller, faster film with a larger one would mark the new pattern for his future.

I think he should have stuck to it, but he didn’t. Gangs of New York is a creative black hole. Even if he’d achieved his “western in outer space” concept, how many of us would care? How relevant would that ever be to anything? And he plans to follow it with another big-budget epic, again with DiCaprio, on the early life of Howard Hughes, called The Aviator. What’s the point? With Catch Me if You Can, haven’t we basically had that experience already? Who would ever have thought that Spielberg would threaten to pull away from Scorsese not just commercially, but artistically?

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